Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Made in America – an Exception or American Exceptionalism

The germ of this post comes from a Jefferson quote highlighted by occasional contributor Michael Newton.

Within the thirty years which have elapsed, how are circumstances changed! … Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort.

As always, context is essential.  What was Jefferson referring to in learning his lesson?  The quote above was contained in a letter to Benjamin Austin written from Monticello in January of 1816.   First, who was Benjamin Austin?  He was an anti-Federalist from Boston who wrote in the Boston Independent Chronicle under the pseudonyms Candidus, Honestus, and Old South.  He was an ardent supporter of Jefferson and maintained a correspondence with him even after Jefferson retired from public life.  Jefferson’s letter was written in response to one written by Austin in December of 1815.

In Austin’s letter to Jefferson, he points out that some of Jefferson’s political enemies are using Jefferson’s own words against him to bolster their arguments for close ties with Britain.  In his early political writings, Jefferson espoused a somewhat utopian vision of an agriculturally based society.  He was critical of Hamilton’s emphasis on banking and industry.  And this is what Austin refers to in his letter.

… I am induced to mention a plea, often used by the friends of England, that the workshops of Europe are recommended by you, as the most proper to furnish articles of manufacture to the citizens of the United States, by which they infer that it is your opinion, the MANUFACTURES of this country are not proper objects for congressional pursuits.  They frequently enlarge on this idea as corresponding with your sentiments, and endeavor to weaken our exertions in this particular, by quoting you as the advocate of foreign manufactures, to the exclusion of domestic.  Not that these persons have any friendly motive towards you, but they think it will answer their purposes, if such sentiments can be promulgated with the appearance of respect to your opinion.  …

As is often the case in such correspondence, the most interesting things are frequently not the main topic of the letters.  The main topic in their conversation is that Jefferson is reversing his position, and now appears to favor the growth of domestic industry and manufacturing.  Apparently he is an example of another politician whose positions shifted a bit as a result of experience.  It is in reading Austin’s letter that one can judge the motivations for Jefferson’s “growth” in thinking.

But what of those other topics? Equally, if not more interesting (at least to this reader) was how Austin and Jefferson came to terms with the results of the French Revolution.  Recall Jefferson ebullience (to be fair, shared by many Americans) at the prospect of a sister republic for America and his callous dismissal of the carnage in France.

… It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.1

Here are Austin’s remarks about what to make of the situation in France:

… As to France, we are all disappointed in the termination of a Revolution which promised a relief from the tyranny of establishments, which have been inconsiderately advocated in the federal papers as “legitimate.”  But the “ways of heaven are dark and intricate,”2 and we are obliged to submit to the decrees of Providence, however contrary to what we may think, are productive to the general happiness of mankind.  As France has fallen by allegiance to foreign despots, America must expect to rise by a UNION of freemen, acting in their own constitutional capacity.  The destiny of France should be a lesson of admonition to the United States.

Indeed the destiny of France should have served as a lesson to not only the United States, but to the world. Jefferson’s opinion of the French Revolution, which he later recanted, betrays a belief that the end justifies the means if, in the opinion of the one doing the justifying, the end is sufficiently noble. His correspondent’s response, although softened by praise, nonetheless includes the admonition: “The real patriot never sacrificed principles to policy.”

Austin asks Jefferson to weigh in and clarify his position.

— Though retired from public life, yet your private council is essential, and we must solicit your aid to help the administration to substantiate by wise measures in peace, what we have obtained in war.  The patriot is always called on duty, while the exigencies of his country need his advice, and his exertions are required to carry his principles into operation.  We are limited but to a few years, to discharge our trust as citizens, and we must become more active as the period shortens. The real patriot never sacrificed principles to policy — Washington, Adams, Hancock, Madison, and yourself, rose superior to such degradation.  The old patriots, if not employed in conducting the ship, yet they are viewed as BEACONS, by which helmsmen may steer to the haven of safety.

Austin’s closing remarks are a reminder  of the responsibilities of citizenship. The Beacons are in place, what is needed is the wit to steer by them.

1. Source: Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to William Short” (3 January 1793), Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Series 1, Reel 17
2.Quote from Addison’s Play, Cato

Remember what our father oft has told us:
The ways of heaven are dark and intricate,
Puzzled in mazes, and perplex’d with errors:
Our understanding traces them in vain,
Lost and bewilder’d in the fruitless search:
Nor sees with how much art the windings run,
Nor where the regular confusion ends.


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